“Local television news can so easy to mock. Happy-talk anchors, meaningless live shots and enough on-screen grammar goofs to send an English teacher into orbit. The good news is that it’s not all terrible, but a lot of it is and sadly, there’s not much hope for improvement.”
– Deborah Potter, former CBS News correspondent
Potter’s damning with faint praise may be an obligatory homage to her former craft, but the wonder of local TV news is that it presents much news at all in its 10 minutes per half-hour block.
That’s because TV news is a visual medium ill-suited for reporting complex stories. That’s where print excels.
But, as the saying goes, if it bleeds, it leads. That’s why you see so many crime stories on Triangle newscasts. Violent crime is richly visual.
Like a few other survivors, I remember Douglas Edwards’ grainy, 15-minute nightly newscast on CBS. Color and the 30-minute newscast came in the late 1960s. Local TV news followed the network template.
Today, we have five-and-a-half hours of local news, weather and sports subsidized by screaming car commercials.
Thus has the tail come to wag the dog.
The result is akin to Parkinson’s Law, which famously holds that work expands to fill the time available. You see this perverse effect in 30-minute blocks of local news bloated with mindless stories, anchors’ yuk-yuk talk, weather forecasts, ceaseless station promos centered on personalities and “coverage you can count on.”
No other Triangle station is into chest-beating quite like WRAL, the ratings leader. And no other Triangle station has advanced so far into the cultivation of personalities as WRAL.
The station’s anchors and meteorologists have a demigod status within the WRAL realm. Whether they like it or not (and I suspect some don’t), they are trotted out like the Clydesdales for the State Fair, charity events such as the Race for the Cure, WRAL Teacher of the Week Award, WRAL Extra Effort Award and countless other WRAL events.
All to keep the WRAL brand alive in the public mind by turning attractive, intelligent people into infotainers – a shotgun marriage of information and entertainment.
Make no mistake: I’m not criticizing anchors David Crabtree, Debra Morgan, Greg Fishel and others. They are very good at what they are expected to do.
Yet who can avoid cringing when Fishel, an accomplished meteorologist, is paraded on the airwaves as WRAL’s “O’Fishel” weather prophet (or worse, dunked for charity)? Or when meteorologist Mike Maze lends his name to “A-Mazing” weather photographs submitted by viewers?
Or even more embarrassingly, when morning anchors Bill Leslie and Renee Chou are praised for “uncovering the big stories” of the day while meeting-and-greeting at the State Farmers Market?
During the course of any news- or weathercast, viewers aren’t allowed to forget that WRAL has its own solar farm in Wake County, that the station’s azalea gardens are not to be missed, that the fountain outside the studio freezes into ice sculpture in winter.
And if viewers are lucky, they will see another outdoor news set made of sculpted sand again this year. Perhaps meteorologist Elizabeth Gardner will once more wade in the WRAL fountain – after all, an outdoor set in the summer can take the starch out of even a weatherperson.
That’s infotainment, folks. It’s clear that entertainment has eclipsed information, and more’s the pity.
Now, having said all this, which station (and its website) do I invariably turn to? Yes, Deborah Potter, like a moth to a flame.
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.